Mash ups – 1980

‘Mash ups’ or dubbing different souonds onto existing film footage have become all the rage since Youtube became popular.

But they’re not new, really.

This was done by Not the Nine O’Clock News, circa 1980, with a speech by Northern Ireland protestant leader Ian Paisley, the sounds of Northern Irish band Thin Lizzy, and – for reasons which are not clear – a bit of footage from Rod Stewart’s band of the time.

Book reviews: Burke, Disraeli, and thoughts on their lessons for New Zealand 

Disraeli: Or, The Two Lives, by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2013

Edmund Burke: the first conservative by Jesse Norman Basic Books, 2013

The Left are natural dreamers, and so they have a ready supply of heroes,” write Douglas Hurd and Edward Young in their biography of Benjamin Disraeli.

I don’t have political heroes: the whole concept seems a bit naff to me.

But of the political heroes I don’t have, these two come top of the list. In my early 20s, in a dusty second-hand book store upstairs in Auckland’s Elliott Street, I found an old 19th Century poster etching of Disraeli. Had it on my bedroom wall for years, when flatmates had Whitney Houston, Morrissey, or Michael Jackson posters.

I’d read essays on the guy, he sounded interesting. And witty.

Burke, I discovered in a first year politics paper – Auckland University’s great ‘Law, Property and Individualism’ course on political philosophy from Plato through to Mill.

Andrew Sharp is still the best university lecturer I ever had, on any subject, I think. Lucid and clear, with an engaging informal approach – he never wasted a word in his lectures, yet he still usually explained things three times, at least for his stage one class.

I’d heard of Burke, but knew nothing about him apart from a few quotes (the one about society being a contract a contract by the living with both the dead and those yet to be born, and the one about a member of Parliament owing electors his judgement not his obedience).

On about the third tutorial, essay topics were being assigned and the tutor – a great teacher who sadly is no longer with us – told me “Do Burke, Rob. You’d love him.”

And she was right.

This was the mid-1980s and politics in New Zealand was awash with ideological debate…actually, that’s not quite correct. The Labour Party, in government, was awash with ideological debate. ideological and factional debate (the two are often hard to distinguish from each other), that is.

By the end of the decade the Labour Party was the only party with clubs on campus – but there were three of them*.

The conservative side of politics was somewhat confused. National had gone down this weird route under Sir Robert Muldoon and was still trying to recover. Roger Douglas had implemented many of the policies National’s more ideologically inclined  – never a very large group – had long wanted to carry out. The rest of National, meanwhile, was spitting with rage and pain, as Rogernomics went through the farming sector and the country’s protected industries like a runaway bulldozer through a Crown Lynn surplus china goods shop.

It was a difficult time. And if you were trying to get a ‘fix’ on your own political outlook, as I was, it was tricky.  I clearly wasn’t a socialist of any kind. There was the emotionally attractive but intellectual  double-blind alley  of simplistic and unrealistic nostalgia offered by Sir Robert Muldoon’s dwindling  followers and the larger and louder New Labour backers of Jim Anderton.

The need for many of the Rogernomic reforms was clear. What was also clear was the collateral damage they were causing.

Burke’s wariness about simplistic, theoretically  driven reforms imposed on a society without due respect and attention to that society’s traditions and values made a lot of sense – intellectually and emotionally. Together with Disraeli’s wit and often wispy rhetoric, they make an appealing package for conservatives, even today.

Disraeli and Burke are conservatives – subtle and profound ones. Both were in fact outsiders of the society in which they found themselves: Burke was Irish, and even though he was Protestant Irish it lent him a certain distance (his mother was catholic).

Disraeli was a novelist, a dandy,  with a suspiciously raffish background and a Jewish heritage,  who somehow got the Conservative Party of the 19th Century, populated with lords and landowners, squires and soldiers, clergymen and churchgoers, to accept him as leader.

It is the sheer, preposterous unlikeliness of Disraeli which makes up a big part of his appeal. He defies almost every stereotype with which we associate the words ‘conservative’ and ‘Victorian’.

 He was, to quote Ian Gilmour, a former Conservative MP and editor of the Spectator, one of  ‘the few Tory leaders who has been able to bring warmth to Conservatives and to add to its basic common sense a degree of romance, generosity and excitement.’

And they were both, of course, writers. Burke was not a particularly successful politician, although he did attain moderate ministerial rank: Disraeli was  a spectacularly successful politician – in the end. He suffered decades of failure, and he was to muse, when he finally got the prime ministership, that he had got it too late.

But he was also, as Hurd and Young show in their biography, ‘always a novelist even when writing no novels at all’.

“Time and again Disraeli uses imagination to make politics interesting. His most powerful strength was the creative energy with which he transformed Victorian politics. The public were fascinated by his speeches in the Commons. As Lord Curzon later put it: ‘the jewelled phrase, the exquisite epigram, the stinging sneer. He was like a conjurer on a platform whose audience with open mouth awaited the next trick.'”

That, rather than winning elections or running governments, is his real legacy and achievement, although he was pretty good at those more prosaic things too. Someone called it ‘the politics of drains’ – Disraeli’s governments, particularly his 1874-80 one, did quite a lot of this. (The other two were short-lived affairs).

Most of all, he was able to make an imaginative, empathetic leap and realise the rising middle classes, and in particularly a sizable chunk of the increasingly unrestful working classes, would happily vote conservative.

No one else seems to have thought so at the time. There was a fear of what ‘the mob’ would do if they were given any sort of power.

But he taught his party, and his lesson for conservatives remains.

There was, for example, a public argument between  with Lord Cranborne, then a newspaper editor but later, when he inherited his family title of Lord Salisbury, to himself lead the Conservatives – about extending the right to vote beyond the aristocracy and landowners to other people. 

Disraeli was prepared to extend the right to vote to more working class men (votes for women was, at the time, only advocated by the real radicals) than was the Liberal Party of the time.  Although supposedly the more ‘progressive’ the Liberals were  worried about whether those voters were quite up to it.

Shouldn’t they just be content to be guided by the wiser and better beings, (of whom the Liberal Party of the day, naturally, considered themselves the prime examples)?

Disraeli cut through all that cant and hypocrisy, all that snobbery masquerading as concern.

As I’ve written in the National Business Review recently , (paywalled) it was something emulated by successful conservative leaders around the world – including in New Zealand.

After having his policy attacked by Cranborne., Disraeli commented that the ‘article was written by a very clever man who has made a very great mistake’ and going on to explain that conservatism did not oppose all change:
‘In a progressive country change is constant and the great question is not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs the laws and traditions of a people, or whether it should be carried out in deference to abstract principles, and arbitrary and general doctrines.’
That returns us to the comment about the Left being ‘natural dreamers’. This takes many forms, and it is particularly pertinent in New Zealand at the moment, with our Labour Party talking about ‘dreams’ in almost every pronouncement.
One of my own, personal, rules of politics is whenever any politician, of any stripe, starts talking about “dreams” what you are about to hear is usually undiluted bilgewater.
 George Orwell put it differently – in a prosperous country, he once said, radical politics is usually a form of make-believe. I’ll return to this one another day – it opens up a whole area to explore about the nature of ideology and left-wing politics and the type of mindset which is attracted to both.
Disraeli, the authors of this latest biography conclude, ‘did not simply outwit his opponents. He also persuaded the vast majority of his supporters that this was actually a direction in which they wanted to go’.
They  quote Walter Bagehot’s  deliciously apt metaphor that Disraeli guided the Conservative Party as the mahout guides the elephant, light in strength but knowing all the party’s habits and ways.
 In New Zealand?  The lessons are there for conservatives here, but they are not about copying or aping what British counterparts have done. The key part of Disraeli’s approach (and, even more so, Burke’s, and I will come to this below) is about ‘the manners, the customs the laws and traditions of a people’.


New Zealanders are not Brits. We have our own manners, customs, laws and traditions. Along with an emerging sense of our own history as something distinct and something our own, and these are  becoming stronger and more confident by the year.

I plan…and here I use the word ‘plan’ somewhat loosely.. to write more on this.

There have been several books on Disraeli – the ‘authoritative’ one is by Robert Blake. It is thorough, reasonably but not excessively  adulatory, and just a little bit dull. Hurd and Young capture Disraeli’s essence – or his importance, anyway –  in a much shorter and more readable book. They are sceptical, occasionally with some astringency, about Disraeli’s more shameless exploits (and there were more than a few of those, one of which – the elevating of imperialism to an explicit, crowd-pleasing political policy, produced a lot of long-term harm).

So I’m not starry-eyed about him. Admirable and fascinating in many ways, there was a streak of frivolity which occasionally tipped into something darker.

As for the second book under review:  Burke’s approach was summarised best in his line that

‘Circumstance  (which with some gentlemen passes for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.’

He follows from Aristotle’s emphasis on human beings as social and political animals, but stresses that the important part of this is the institutions and customs a society evolves for itself   over time. These institutions, customs and norms ‘become a repository of shared knowledge and inherited wisdom.’

His rejection of abstract reasoning can – and often is – reduced to caricature, sometimes by Burke himself. A querulous query to the Sheriffs of Bristol, a bunch of lads who sound like a barrel of laughs, is cited as the essence of anti-intellectualism:

What is the use of discussion a man’s abstract right to food or medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them…I shall always advise to call in the of the farmer and the physician, rather than the professor of metaphysics.’

Burke does not, in fact, dismiss philosophy or metaphysics quite as comprehensively and certainly not as unthinkingly as that quote suggests: instead one of his great themes is that ‘universal principles themselves are never sufficient in themselves to guide practical deliberation’.

Burke was not trying to create a philosophical system, but, Norman argues, he has

‘a rich and distinctive world view of his own….Each[social order] is sui generis, a largely incremental and historically continuing human achievement…Any practical or theoretical reflection on such a human artifact – and this applies to any institution, large or small, peoples and nations as much as words or ideas – must therefore begin with history and experience.

‘Far from choking off individual energy and aspiration…it makes social and economic advancement possible. It is a colossal collective achievement which must be treated with respect by all would-be reformers.’

Amongst these institutions is the market, which at the time Burke was writing was becoming more studied, most famously by Adam Smith. Smith once commented that ‘Burke is the only man I ever knew who thinks on economic subjects exactly as I do, without any previous communications having passed between us.’

Burke did not actually write much on economic matters, or at least did not have much published, but some works assembled after his death and labeled Thoughts and Detail on Scarcity cover the area and Norman points out, rightly I think, that neither Burke nor Smith was really what we would call a full-blown free trader: that Burke ‘sees markets and other institutions as operating  within, drawing from and contributing to a broader moral community.’

Markets need to be respected because they reflect people’s myriad individual choices. They are not the product of some idealogue scribbling out a theoretical construct of society – their strength is they evolved out of humans doing what comes naturally.

They work best when the signals they send about people’s preferences is subject to as little interference as possible.  But they also are just one custom and tradition. They need to work within the customs and mores of that broader community –  – in New Zealand’s case, within our ideas and assumptions about ourselves, about what makes us distinctive as a people. This is, I think, – becoming more important in how our own politics is framed.

That, though, touches on my paid work, and for now it is the weekend. More on that, in another forum.

For now, I’d recommend both these books for anyone of a conservative frame of mind – and anyone who wants to understand some of the more important and subtle, but less understood, currents of the conservative tradition.

* I am going by memory here. No doubt someone will be able to dig out the records or minutes from some tedious and lengthy meetings of trainee 20 year old polticians which show there were only two. Or five. Good luck to you, whoever you are.

Oh no, prime minister 

‘An editor isn’t like a general commanding an army; he’s just the ringmaster of a circus. I mean I can book the acts, but I can’t tell the acrobats which way to jump.’

Antony Jay, who created the superb BBC comedy ‘Yes Minister’ and ‘Yes Prime Minister’ series has died.


A lot of folk – including, according legend, then-British Prime Minister Margeret Thatcher, regarded it as a documentary. When it started being shown on TV in New Zealand I was at polytech and boarding with the family of a top New Zealand public servant. I don’t think he ever called it a documentary (and he had worked in the British civil service before coming here) but it was about the only programme he watched and I was left with the distinct impression it struck a very strong chord.

‘Open government, Prime Minister. Freedom of information. We should always tell the press freely and frankly anything that they could easily find out some other way.’


It was also a reminder, in its way, of a more robust political culture than New Zealand has. Many of the episodes were based on either current events or on real previous events recorded in various boat-rocking memoirs by former ministers or by officials.

This excerpt is taken from an episode based on the Westland row which saw Michael Heseltine walk out of Thatcher’s cabinet. Sir Humphrey’s speech at the end is magnificent.

New Zealand doesn’t have much of that. In recent times, Ruth Richardson’s autobiography came closest. Simon Carr’s ‘The Dark Art of Politics’ had some insights into working for Jim Bolger and then for the Act Party in the mid-1990s but there was a sense he could have told much, much more.

This episode, about memoirs of a former PM, could have been about almost any former UK minister, probably from the Harold Wilson governments as those administrations unleashed a library of bilious memoirs.

It’s also brilliantly played, especially by Eddington.


Books and lists

Lists of things are all the rage. They help sell news…I was going to say newspapers, but hell, I mean clicks.

In 2000 years, perhaps, New Zealand will have one of these. It must be preserved.
You know the kind of thing.  What’s hot, What’s not” or ” 
Five Things You Absolutely Must Do Before Ennui Overtakes Your Entire Life and You Might Just As Well Lie Down On A Skillet And Wait for Them to Slide You into the Crematorium“.Well okay:  none are quite as explicit as that. But it’s very much what they seem to be getting at.

And then there is the whole ” 100 Record Albums You Must Have in Your Collection if You Are to Be Taken Remotely Seriously” or “ 100 Books You Should Be Able to At Least Reel off the Conversational Equivalent of Coles Notes About”.

These sorts of lists are a bit more forgivable.

A bit.

There is still, unfortunately, more than a whiff of ostentatious taste-setting for the plebs about them.

Which is one reason – but not the only reason – why I really like the Spin Off’s 100 great New Zealand non-fiction books list posted this week.

It doesn’t take itself too seriously. It has been compiled by a group of people, with a joint byline of Group Think – itself a neat little dig at other lists like this.

And certainly some of the books listed show more than a small whiff of  Braunias-esqe mischievousness.

Some are genuinely good.I got into a neat little online discussion on Twitter – which is possible to do, sometimes – over books which should be included and came up with a few which they missed.

This is the other aspect of such lists which can be a bit naff ,  so I’m venturing forth on this a bit carefully.

It’s  the whole “I can’t believe you’ve missed out **** *********!!” thing.

Accusations of “glaring omissions” are common over lists like this. I’m not going to glare at any omissions, nor even eye-roll at them (although I did over some of the books included. The Passionless People? Really??)

But lists like this should not take on the form or tone of ex cathedra pronouncements from some cultural pontiffs. (yes, the authors of this list  claim it is “definitive”, but it is clear from the context that they do so with tongues firmly in their cheeks).

The approach of the list makers, in this case anyway, seems to be very much in the area of “here are some books we have come up with – what do you think?”

This is a conversation starter, not a Final Word.

The compilers manage to do this with a combination of some very good books recommended, often some quite obscure ones, and often some not obscure ones which, to my own slight chagrin, I’ve not got around to reading.

That is the other, perhaps most useful, purpose of  of lists like this: memory joggers.

There are at least two books on this list which I greeted with a “oh yeah, haven’t got round to that one yet”.

One final point: New Zealand seems to have reached a point in our history where non-fiction books are streaming onto our  bookshelves (and, yes, onto our kindles and iPads as well) in a flood.

The New Zealand non-fiction section in Unity Books is spreading, and is stacked wide as well is high. There is a thirst for New Zealand history right now – history,  and analysis of that history

If you want to skip the next bit and go on to my – quite short – list, feel free to do so. I’m about to go into Old Fart Mode.

When I was growing up, there were few books on New Zealand history – and in particular very few on New Zealand political history.

And about half the books on news on political history were written by John A Lee, or it least it seemed that way. There were no books on the history of non-Labour governments and almost none on non-Labour politicians.

There were a couple of pamphlet-sized booklets on political history –  some particularly short but good ones on the interwar period – and there may have been a biography of Richard John Seddon.

That was kind of about it.

There were local histories,  which tended to gloss over some of the more awkward, not to say bloody aspects of New Zealand’s history, in particular with reference to any events between roughly 1845 and 1872.

The flood of books about New Zealand history in recent years has, I believe, only begun to slake the thirst New Zealanders have for all this.

Aspects of national identity and knowledge of our history is becoming more important, more emotionally important, to New Zealanders in today’s world because today’s world is so globalised.

Living in this environment means an awareness of what makes us specifically us becomes more important.  It is not about nationalism (or racism either come to that) although it can be warped into those poison-soaked channels by the unscrupulous and the stupid  if care is not taken.



Here is my, small,  number of additions to the Spinoff list:


  1.  His Way by Barry Gustafson –  I’ve written about this before, here, and won’t add much.  It’s the best New Zealand   political biography I’ve read and the companion volume, Gustafson’s biography of Keith Holyoake, is almost as good.
  2. 1981 by Geoff Chapple –   A protester/journalist-eye view  of the 1981 Springbok tour. Partial,  highly partial –  but then, given the fierce and bitter divisions of the Tour I don’t think anybody could write about it dispassionately. Not at the time certainly. Chapple  glosses over – but does not totally ignore – the propensity for some more fanatical protesters to engage in vandalism and behaviour which could easily have seriously endangered other people. The self-righteousness of the time is caught, and so is the atmosphere of violence.  It was a bitter, ugly period  and this book manages to reflect that while also informing.
  3. The Unauthorised Version by Ian F Grant –  Again, I’ve written about this in the past, here, so I won’t expand too much. Effectively it’s a history of New Zealand told through cartoons drawn during that history, and with some good explanatory chapters. I often give this to newcomers as a primer  on New Zealand  history up to the 1980s. And not jokingly either.  It is a very good, entertaining summary.
  4. New Zealand the Way I Want It by Bob Jones –  written as a response to the National Party 1975 election slogan: “New Zealand the way you want it” this is Bob Jones’ – now Sir Bob – best written work I think.  Again, Old Fart Alert here –  but in the 1970s everyone was so  polite and Jones’ bluntness and exuberant, don’t give a damn commentaries on New Zealand public  life had roughly the same impact as a gale force  Wellington southerly would have on a stiflingly  humid Auckland food hall.
  5. Food for Flatters by Michael Volkering – when I started flatting every flat had this, usually in the third drawer down the kitchen where the  house accounts were kept. It started with teaching you how to boil an egg –   and some of us didn’t move on from that page for some time – before moving on to more complicated things such as curried sausages.
  6. Economic Management By the New Zealand Treasury 1984 –  This was written back in the day when briefings to the incoming government actually meant something. This was more meaningful than most. As a giveaway, the first hundred copies came with a set of brown trousers and bicycle clips.
  7. Mark of the Lion By Kenneth Sanford –  the story of Charles Upham,  who won the Victoria Cross twice (one of only three people to do so, and the only one who wasn’t a medical orderly). Utterly mind blowing, this book.  At one point during one of the battles during the retreat to El Alamein, he was so peppered  with small wounds and blood from shrapnel some of his own people did not recognise him. And some of the wounds were from his own hand grenades because he tended to get so close to the enemy before throwing them.







‘A dreaded sunny day, so I meet you at the cemetery gates…’ Morrissey.

Mozza wrote a tome: I know, I know, its bilious

Autobiography, by Morrissey, Penguin 2013

‘I loved Morrissey with a devotion which outweighed anything I’d felt for a rock singer before,’ writes Tracey Thorn in Bedsit Disco Queenreviewed last month. 

‘It wasn’t that I wanted to sleep with him (well  no I did actually but that seemed unlikely to happen, what with one thing and another) I wanted to be him…’

Morrissey & Marr, recording [screenshot caught from South Bank Show doco, 1987]

Morrissey does seem to have that kind of  mesmerising effect on some people.

He currently has his first novel out, and as usual is causing a stir. There is a couple of sex scenes in it, which of course has attracted a great deal of attention, partly because they so awfully written.

Caligula would have blushed, apparently.

And as usual there is a heated discussion as to whether Morrissey is taking the piss. Personally: I think he must be.

‘Twas ever thus.

In 1984 it seemed as though, to borrow a phrase from 20 years earlier,  groups of guitars were on the way out.  Most of what was on the airwaves was synth-based or boppy keyboard stuff – Culture Club, Spandau Ballet, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Wham, Madonna. Or Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’.

Hated them. I hated them all.

The bands which had mattered most to me, at that point,  – the very English The Jam and the very, very Aussie Cold Chisel  – had split up the previous year.

True, there were some locally based renegades, producing some deliciously throwback-like stuff from Dunedin, but the likes of the Verlaines or the Chills had to be hunted out in the singles and EP bins of the rekkid stores.

You certainly didn’t hear ’em on the radio, and in those days – for any youngsters who have stumbled across this – you had to get your music from the radio, pretty much.

Oh, there was Radio With Pictures on the telly on Sunday nights. You got a sense of something different from that. And of course if you were fortunate enough to be living in a university town, there was student radio.

I wasn’t fortunate enough. Not at that point, anyway.

There was this band from the US with Byrd-like guitars, a silly name, and incomprehensible lyrics who had a recent, interesting song called Radio Free Europe. 

Then one afternoon at a mate’s place in Whakatane this filigree riff tumbles out of the speakers, followed by an unmistakably Motown-ish beat, and this warbly, not-quite-in-tune vocal sort-of-sings across the song, 

‘Puunct-ured bicylce
On a hillside, desolate….
Will nature make a man of me yet?’

The lyrics were…well, uncommonly lyrical for the time.

The singer was so camp he made Boy George look like Jimmy Barnes, but in the context of the time, that wasn’t unusual.

The blokier musical fan often had a problem with this about the Smiths. I know people – well, blokes – who will happily punch up the volume button for the B-52s or Queen but who find the Smiths a bit too gay.

I suspect its not so much the gay aspect, actually: its the emotional rawness of some of Morrissey’s lyrics, especially when combined with Johnny Marr’s guitar.

But then, one should not play down the obvious cause. It was, after all,  hardly calculated to comfort your average, 20 year old, vaguely blokey music fan who had been hankering for a decent guitar-based band and who thought he’d found it, only to find it was accompanied by a singer prancing about the place with gladioli sticking out the top of his trou and singing about the sun shining out of his behind.

It was a bit like the Mountie chorus in Monty Python’s Lumberjack Song, when they suddenly realise what they’re singing.

But, beyond that rather obvious issue, there were others. Morrissey’s lyrics are bleakly, bluntly honest about the desolation of rejection and depression, often to the point of self-parody.

Often well beyond that point, in fact.

A personal fave is Cemetry Gates , (yeah, that’s how Morrissey spelt it) with its clean, shuffling rhythm (borrowed from this 1970s pop hit?) and Mozza deliberately over-doing the negative ions, or negative irony:

A dreaded sunny day, and I’ll meet you at the cemetery gates/ Keats and Yeats are on your side…’

A song full of poetic allusions, it wears its lyrical cleverness on its floppy, foppish sleeve.

But it isn’t just about the words.

The reason the Smiths worked so well was Marr’s guitar work sounded like what Morrissey’s words were trying to convey.

That grim rumbling low guitar chord which announces ‘How Soon Is Now? is like a twist in the stomach:  Marr’s zooming, lurching runs down the fretboard sound like it feels to be on your own in the big city and unable to connect with anyone. It’s a recording full of deep-in-the-gut lurches of dread and despair.

Or ‘That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore’ –   the long, melancholy, withdrawing roar towards the end, as Morrissey croons ‘I’ve seen this happen in other people’s lives, and now it’s happening in mine….’ over Marr’s waves of rising, receding, sad guitars.

The  desolate,  shimmering (and it is very difficult to write about the Smiths without using either of those words) opening to ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ sounds like a wide,  empty rain-coated ashfelt road on a Sunday morning would sound if it could play the guitar.

It is the sound of wandering home the morning after a lousy, unenjoyable party.

This is all conveyed even before Morrissey opens his mush to warble that great opening line

‘I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour…’.


The words fit together like well-sculpted brickwork. As Aussie singer Paul Kelly notes in his book (reviewed here, btw…) , almost every opening line of a Smiths song is a killer.

Marr’s guitars always grab the attention, signalling something deeper than the normal pop song. Combined with Morrissey’s literate, allusive, and often just plain sad lyrics, they pack a powerful emotional punch.

It can be uncomfortable to listen to.

There is a better musical analysis than I can manage here: parts of this documentary are a bit over-wrought and far too sociological for my tastes, but there’s a great piece with composer Charles Hazelwood at around 19 minutes where he talks about the way Marr used chords and and the effect they have.

Morrissey’s Autobiography caused a stir even before it was published: his demand that it be issued as a ‘Penguin Classic’ topped a career of fairly notorious primma donna-ish behaviour.

He got his way. It isn’t a classic: it is a fascinating book in bits and a real bore in other bits.

….So, okay, its a bit like a lot of ‘classics’, I suppose.

At its best, it is a work of a musical fan, and a very thoughtful one. There is a lot here if you like the New York Dolls (I don’t), there are other more obvious influences.

Here is Morrissey on Patti Smith and her ‘Horses’ album:

singing and looking and saying absolutely everything that would be thought to go against the listener’s sympathy. But the reverse happened .. however heavy hearted and impossible you might feel about yourself, you can still bestow love through recorded song. …the fact you do not look like a pop star in-waiting should not dishearten you because your oddness could become the decisive wind of change for theirs. 

There is nothing obvious about Patti Smith….the female voice in rock music had rattled with fathomless depths of insincerity,whereas Patti Smith spoke with a boy’s bluntness, and she looked for squabbles wherever she went.”

Projection? Whatever. Morrissey writes of Patti Smith as though she’d written his own, personal, artistic manifesto.

For all that, he recalls that when he and Marr decide to form a band, “I suggest to Johnny that we call ourselves The Smiths, and he agrees. Neither of us can come up with anything else.”

Going back further, there is a touch of Misery Memoir about his schooldays….later mined in the opening track of the Smiths second album.

“Belligerent ghouls run/Manchester schools” he was to warble, weaving over the top of one of the most magnificent, meandering rhythm and guitar tracks Marr, Joyce and Rourke were ever to lay down). 

When of the more granite faced, wounded and wounding of his teachers spies a particular piece of music on Morrissey’s desk, the wintry face splits into a hitherto unseen smile and the teacher fetches a record player so they all can listen to it.

“Music, you see, is the key.” Morrissey muses.

It is a rare snatch of warmth. Much of the Autobiography is a settling of scores: with record company staff some of the big targets   “Rough Trade personnel in the early 1980s need never have feared sexual assault” Morrissey says, and he has fun with kind of self defeating mindset, overlaid with political justifications, which hung in the air.

Everything was question of personal identity and Rough Trade set out to assert autonomy whilst at the same time challenging the established order.

They did this largely by pressing records that no one wanted to buy….

Although the existing Rough Trade catalogue was known to be anti everything it was also anti listenability. It would take the Smiths to bring a level of success …and suddenly he smell of money replaced the smell of overcooked rice in the Rough Trade cloisters.”

That shows – contra the evidence of his recent novel – how well Morrissey can write. Not only is it funny, the use of ‘cloisters’ at the end of that sentence is deftly deployed.

And of course the former bandmates, with whom he had a lengthy court case in the mid ’90s, cop it in the neck, not only in the odd bitchy aside, but in several lengthy chapters.  I ended up feeling sorry for them – especially as I feel the rhythm section’s contribution to the band has been underrated (again, check out the drum and bass work on ‘Cemetry Gates’).

Better, much better, is the first half of the book, where even where Morrissey is being waspish he is also being very funny, often at his own expense. In his late teens he had some keen ideas about how Coronation Street should be revamped to meet the post-punk generation, and sent in a script which ended with Ena Sharples snorting ‘Do I really look like a fan of X Ray Spex?’

The link up with Marr is described in still-baffled but appreciative terms: the two might be, in the title of a biography of the two by writer Johnny Rogan, ‘a severed alliance’ but Morrissey is uncharacteristically generous about his former partner.

He reflects on  Marr’s obvious, huge talent and asks why Marr has teamed up with him  and not ‘with others less scarred….It seemed to me that Johnny had enough spark and determination to push his way in amongst Manchester headhunters  – yet here he was, with someone  whose natural  bearing discouraged openness.’

That shows an honesty, a self awareness and a generosity of  spirit not always on display.

I kept thinking of an exchange quoted, not here, but in Tony Fletcher’s great history of the Smiths, ‘A Light That Never Goes Out’ where Morrissey, in a note to some rekkid company executive, tells him to ‘Accept me as I am – completely unacceptable!’

Well, maybe.

But the music: certainly.

"I have learned from my mistakes and I am sure I could repeat them exactly"

Peter Cook died 20 years ago. A brilliant mess.

What this excerpt hints at, fleetingly, is how eerily his E L Wisty character foretold John Major.

Apart from all the usual highlights, he also enlivened some absolute rubbish – and in the last 20 years of his life  he appeared in a lot of rubbish.

My favourite is the fairly messy ‘Whoops Apocalypse’ where he appears as a bonkers, belligerent British Prime Minister, inspiring his countrymen with the words ‘We didn’t win at Dunkirk by running away.’

Paper Dolls – IQU featuring Betty-Anne Monga (rare 1984 video)

For Koywoy Musik Munff.

This is dance music, which I usually avoid in the same way a vampire avoids garlic crucifixes. But I loved the EP this came off, ‘Witchcraft’.

It’s got quite a few things going for it. One is Betty Monga’s truly great voice, which mournfully, elegantly soars here. (The core members of this group went on to form Ardijah, which had quite a bit of success at the time).

Another is the line ‘everyday somebody tries to complicate our future’ which as a 20 year old in mid 1980s New Zild, had a certain resonance.

It’s a classic video clip in other ways: the hair, the clothes, but also they all look so young and nervous.

This is 30 years old, which feels extremely vertiginous.